Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sleeping Dogs

I first saw this film on TV in 1981 (during the divisive Springbok Rugby Tour of New Zealand). My main impression was that the police actions during the riot scenes in the film were mild by comparison real thing shown on the TV News at that time. I was also amazed by how much cooperation the film-makers must have had with the Air Force.

Sleeping Dogs is based on a C K Stead's novel Smith's Dream -- which I had read a year or two earlier. While I enjoyed the book, the film has stuck in my mind longer. The plot is pretty straightforward with Smith's marriage breaking up at about the time that a major economic crisis is leading to authoritarian government in New Zealand and an insurgency. Running away from his marriage he gets mistaken for an insurgent, and discovers it is hard to prove that one is not a terrorist.

As other people have noted Sleeping Dogs was first of the current crop of 35mm feature films made in NZ. Most of its notability is related to this fact and that it is a pseudo-political thriller set in NZ. Both of these aspects mean that Sleeping Dogs is of far more interest to Kiwis than people overseas. To an overseas audience it would look like a very low budget and laid back thriller with no particular message or other notable features. To us we get to see a successful piece of low budget film making, a very young looking Sam Neill (as Smith) and New Zealand more or less as it looked in the 1970s (the days when the RNZAF had fighter jets, Dougal Stevenson read the news and Prime Ministers seems all powerful).

Seeing the film a second time, 27 years later, I found the concept of the NZ government declaring a state of emergency more far fetched than it had in Muldoon's time, but I found the idea of the police breaking into houses to arrest 'enemies of the state' / terrorists to be quite believable (especially given the 'Terrorism' Raids of Oct 2007). The brittle relationship between the gung-ho world-wise American and the naive, easily upset, Smith was reminiscent of the relationships between Americans and Kiwis over the Nuclear Ships issue of the 1980s. I had forgotten the personal battle between Smith and Jesperson, head of the special police, which feels like men reliving a school boy battle -- this time with guns.

Sleeping Dogs is especially worth seeing if you are interested in New Zealand film making history and the DVD comes with an interesting documentary on the making of the film.
Watch the Sleeping Dogs trailer (3.3MB; 2.16 minutes) at the Film Archive.

Ian's rating 3/5

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